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 Global Perspective

April 8, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 1

global perspective
Michael Gillgannon, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., is director of campus ministry for the Archdiocese of La Paz, Bolivia. He has been a missionary serving in Bolivia since 1974.



The 21st century has not been good for democracy or development in Latin America. Haiti is simply following the crowd.

The United States doesn't know its 'back porch' is on fire

By Michael J. Gillgannon

Looking for Mary Jo Leddy's Lent Reflections?
Mary Jo Leddy has completed her series of Lenten reflections. They are, however, still available.
  • Lent Week 6: Let Jesus out of our little thought boxes.
  • Lent Week 5: The wounds don't wash away.
  • Lent Week 4: The Christ was not a powerless victim.
  • Lent Week 3: The ingratitude that binds us.
  • Lent Week 2: Liberating gratitude.
  • Lent Week 1: Captivity and liberation in North America.
  • LA PAZ, Boliva -- The United State's habit of treating Latin American politics and concerns as patio trasero (back porch) matters could come back to haunt Americans this year. The "back porch" is on fire and it threatens the whole house of hemispheric development.

    Haiti is only the latest sign of the chronic instability of democracies in these southern climes. That U.S. policies are condemned by the unseated president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as the causes of his fall simply echo the 200 years of interference in Haitian affairs denounced by historians and political scientists. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has been manipulated, occupied and demoralized by all American governments and political parties. What always remains is a feudal control by a few rich families, with the corrupt military and police, refusing to change and quite content to leave the peasants in penury. Any social change, and the ambiguous case of Mr. Aristide is only the latest instance, will not be allowed though chaos might follow.

    The 21st century has not been good for democracy or development in Latin America. Haiti is simply following the crowd.

    In January of 2000, Jamil Mahuad, was violently overthrown in Ecuador by street mobs and indigenous organizations. He dollarized the economy and when that did not work he froze bank assets to pay the debt. But he too was only following the script. Two other presidents, Abdala Bucaram (1998) and Fabian Alarcon (2002) were turned out of office. After Alarcon, Vice President Gustavo Noboa served as interim president but lost the next election in 2002. Col. Lucio Gutierrez won that election with the help of indigenous parties who now accuse him of a selling out on economic and land policies. Observers do not expect him to complete his term.

    Last October, Bolivia threw out its constitutional president after a yearlong series of violent protests against economic and social policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund. Over 50 deaths, hundreds of injured and millions of dollars of property damage were the price of change. The vice president, Carlos Mesa, now governing, has real popularity (see his interview in Newsweek for Feb. 16) and is seen as honest but he has almost no room to maneuver on national policies and he is trying to govern as an independent with no party support in the Congress. Bolivia still borders on political and economic chaos.

    Argentina and Uruguay, two of the richest and most advanced countries in South America, do not brighten the hemispheric horizon. President Fernando de Rua took the presidency of Argentina in December of 1999 to pick up the pieces of the failed dollarization policies ($140 billion in debt) and political corruption of Saul Menem. But even the sophisticated Argentineans, from every social class, hit the streets in protest as their dollar savings were frozen in the banks, their money was devalued overnight by 67% and $40 billion fled the country for safer havens.

    Rua was followed by four interim presidents trying to calm things down until Nestor Kichner was elected last year. He quickly faced down the International Monetary Fund and the United States on debt. The man has chutzpah. He failed to meet debt payment deadlines and told the IMF that Argentina would only pay 25% of its debt in the future. He finally blinked and agreed to a $3 billion debt payment to avoid bankruptcy and seizure of public and private assets. The Argentine economy is rebounding because it has an historic base in both industry and agriculture. But Kichner is right. Argentina, like the rest of Latin America, cannot pay down enormous and unjust debts and respond to the social and economic development of its people.

    Beautiful Uruguay, the Switzerland and bank haven of the Southern Cone, has so far kept its presidential succession by voting intact. But 100 Uruguayans between ages 18 and 40 emigrate every day because there is no work. And no prospects.

    In Peru, Alberto Fujimori enjoyed successive terms as president from 1990 to 2000, but he was forced to step down because of corruption and human rights violations. Alejandro Toledo, a U.S. educated member of the Quechua people, took the office of presidency with great popularity. But he has fallen victim to a series of scandals and his incompetent administration has brought his popularity down to 7%. A recall vote is possible.

    In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez is hemmed in by a referendum vote that could end his presidency soon. He accuses the United States of fomenting and giving financial support to the opposition. His popularist and social democrat reforms have angered the rich, and the United States, as Venezuela is a principal supplier of oil to the U.S.

    And Columbia continues to make thousands of internal refugees in an unending billion-dollar drug war financed by the United States. An undeclared, inconclusive and interminable civil war since 1948 leaves a potentially wealthy country prostrate.

    Argentina, Columbia, and Venezuela are heavily Catholic with powerful hierarchical church influence. But their class and racial divisions divide both church and state. And their debts and corruption make democratic governance almost impossible.

    Add to this the deeply resented arm-twisting (totally rejected by President Lula of Brazil and President Kirchner of Argentina who are leading a Latin revolt on trade issues) for a "Free Trade Agreement in the Americas" by January 1, 2005 and one sees why the "back porch" may burn the hemispheric house down.

    And it could happen before the United States has its election day.

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